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Alex Eames
Translatortips founder

To test or not to test? That is the question!

There's been a lot of discussion of this subject recently in the sci.lang.translation newsgroup and Payment Practices mailing list.

The questions on people's minds appear to be:

Question 1: Are agencies giving out parts of a large job disguised as a test to many different translators in the hope of getting it translated for free?

Short answer 1: Not unless they're stupid AND crazy.

Question 2: Why haven't I had any work yet - I sent the test back 3 months ago?

Short answer 2: Because either they haven't had anything in your subject and language combination yet or maybe you're not their first choice translator.

No agency is likely to try to split up a job, disguised as a test, among many translators. It would be suicidal. Half of all the tests I send out never come back! I guess the reason for this is that people either find them too hard or get another paid job at the same time. Then when they find my test in the bottom of their pile 2 months later they think "well even if I do it now what's he going to think of me if I send it back this late?" So it gets thrown away. I've done this myself many times when working as a freelancer for other agencies.

On top of this if you split up a job between many people the quality suffers because everyone has their own individual style and choice of vocabulary. It would be more expensive to rework everyone's "test" into a usable translation than it would be to pay proper rates for it to begin with. Any agency who tries to get away with not reworking the text would not last long.

Many agencies have no idea what kind of work is coming through the door tomorrow, let alone next week or next month. Since they can't control what and when they like to cover all possibilities by having several translators available for each language combination and specialist subject. In practice they will usually have a first choice person who they've developed a relationship with over a period of time. This person will usually be first to be offered everything in their language combination because they are trusted.

It does happen that translators go on holiday or have a busy period. So if the agencies only had one person for a given language combination they would lose money if that person is not available when an assignment comes in. It may be that you have been tested for the number 2, 3 or 4 position (or more if it's a large agency). If this is the case you might have to wait until number 1 goes on holiday or turns down an assignment before you have a chance. It will happen eventually though and when it does you must make sure you do a superb job. Then maybe they will...

...remember you first next time.

Every summer (as a freelancer) I pick up a few new clients when other translators are on holiday - they usually tell you "the person we usually use is on holiday are you available?" This is a fantastic opportunity! I make a point of giving them extra special attention and they nearly always stay with me instead of going back to their other translator(s) because I keep them happy.

My opinion on tests is that some agencies really do need them to avoid giving work to translators who simply aren't good enough. I suggest that you adopt some or all of the following which will give you some protection:

a) Don't do more than you feel comfortable with. A lot of people have suggested a limit of 200 or 300 words. I think you have to be a bit flexible rather than set a specific limit. 2000 words is definitely excessive. If it "feels" right and you really think there might be a large job in the pipeline, and you're not busy at the moment, what have you got to lose if you do 500, 700 or 1000 words? We're all in business and business involves balancing risk against reward. But do trust your instinctive "gut feeling". When I go against my instincts I usually regret it. If you don't like the people you're dealing with or it doesn't "feel" right it's your instincts telling you to beware. Ignore them at your peril!

b) Don't prioritise a test above paid work even if the customer is saying it could lead to a huge job - I'm sure we've all heard that one a hundred times! Service your existing customers first - then you're more likely to keep them!

c) Try to avoid doing a test if it is required by a certain deadline, or at least tell them that you can't guarantee it by a certain deadline because you've got a lot of work on at the moment. This will flush out those who are trying to get a small job done for free. If the agency needs to test you under pressure and you are busy you could always arrange a date in the near future for them to send you a short test at a convenient time.

d) Some people advocate ending a test mid-sentence and this would be OK as long as you explain in a non-accusing way - before you do the test:

"it's my policy to end tests mid-sentence because I've been ripped off several times in the past"
If you don't tell them first they might just think you are careless and then you're wasting your time even bothering to do the test. Also if they don't like it you know there could be something "fishy" going on.

I don't think I would do this myself but I don't think I'd really object if a potential translator felt safer by doing it.

e) A general translation test that an agency might send you when you first apply is usually not needed back by a certain time. Tests for particular jobs are obviously required fairly quickly but you can ask to have the evaluation back equally quickly. You are also more likely to be given these kinds of tests by clients you already know and trust.

f) You could always offer to send the names of a few client references or samples of previously completed work instead of a test. A lot of good agencies will like this approach because it may mean they can call someone they have heard of and find out you are a good translator in this subject and language combination - without having to spend money on testing you!

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